Dylan’s Pictures: stunned into words

barnes thesundaytimes.co.ukIn his book Keeping An Eye Open Julian Barnes claims that ‘it is a rare picture that stuns or argues us into silence.’ In my last post I noted that the opposite is true for Dylan; a few special pictures can stun him from silence into words. Reviewing the therapeutic approach to art advocated by Alain de Botton, I asked whether such a framework might help me to understand Dylan’s response to art.

june 15 023 Here I explore that possibility by applying de Botton’s methodology to Dylan’s favourite pictures. To do this I identified the pictures in our home which Dylan particularly likes; it is clear which these are as Dylan spends time with (and sometimes talks about) them in contrast to others in the house which he ignores. I then grouped the pictures according to possible ‘function’. Although I have aligned my categories with some of the functions described by de Botton I started by generating my own functions, grounded in observations of Dylan, rather than attempting to apply de Botton’s schema. This seemed appropriate as de Botton’s typology was developed from a neurotypical perspective and art may have alternative functions for an autistic adult. From this process I identified four categories which I discuss below.

a) Remembering: the comfort of mother

june 15 004One summer in Margate I stepped inside a vintage shop wondering if Dylan would be patient while I rummaged through clothes. A print of Tamara de Lempicka’s Mother and Child (1931) on the shop wall caught Dylan’s attention. He stood transfixed by it until closing time when (with difficulty) I encouraged him out. I gave Dylan a print of the painting for his 18th birthday the following year; it hangs above his bed and I think is one of his favourite images. I sometimes wonder if its function is along the lines described by de Botton and that its primary purpose is as comforter. My attention is also caught by the unusual eyes, however; perhaps it is those which attract Dylan to this painting?

june 15 006Some of Dylan’s other favourite pieces involve female forms which I think Dylan connects with mothering. Dylan sometimes names Claude-Emil Schuffenecker’s Madame Champsaur (1890), for example, as ‘mooey’ although I am fairly sure he knows I am not (and was not) the woman in the painting. I have written elsewhere about Dylan’s deep memory of his encounters with this painting while in France and I think he perhaps links ‘the woman with a fan’ to his experience of being a child. Dylan is particularly fascinated by Madame Champsaur’s hands and often says ‘hand’ while looking at the picture. This interests me as when Dylan was young he would frequently take my hand and match my palm against his own, placing them next to each other as if comparing them. He doesn’t do it anymore but I used to think of it as Dylan’s way of working out that he was connected to me.

I could cite other examples of Dylan responding positively to mothers in art; the de Lempicka and Shuffenecker are particular favourites but they are illustrative of a broader preoccupation with madonna imagery. This category aligns fairly well with de Botton’s discussion of William Dyce’s Madonna and Child (which I referred to in my previous post) and with his suggestion that such an image might offer ‘comfort’ to the viewer. In terms of de Botton’s seven functions I would say that the examples I give here are about ‘remembering’.

b) Self-understanding: belonging and community

june 15 014Dylan has other favourite pictures which incorporate representations of the female form but not in ways which he connects with ‘mothering’. When Dylan first paid attention to the figure in this Oxfam poster I thought it might be the representational nature of the image which appealed to him; symbols are easy for Dylan to make sense of and he can find meaning in line and abstract drawings quite quickly. The figure in this print was the first one which Dylan appeared to recognise and respond to when he was young; it is also the first picture which ‘stunned Dylan into words’. I remember my amazement when Dylan pointed to and named ‘knee’, ‘arm’, ‘elbow’, ‘chin’, ‘nose’, ‘eye’, ‘hair’, ending with a triumphant ‘woman’. Dylan still engages in this naming. I sometimes try to change or develop the features Dylan names but he is not having any of it; in this sense Dylan’s engagement with the picture has become routinised. I’m interested in Dylan’s focus on anatomy. Perhaps it is through this he develops a physical sense of self? This poster belonged to Dylan’s biological father so I enjoy the fact that Dylan has such feeling for it.

june 15 017Gauguin’s Breton Peasant Women (1894) is a particular favourite of Dylan’s and one which I often find him staring at in the evening in the dining room where it hangs. At such times the picture seems to induce a trance-like state. At other times, however, Dylan likes to talk to me about the picture, naming its features in a particular order as with the Oxfam poster. What interests me about Dylan’s relationship with the Gauguin, however, is that the things he names are inanimate rather than figurative: stick (in one of the women’s hands); bag; rock; sand; shoe. Here, then, Dylan seems to be focusing on the physical world the women inhabit rather than on the women themselves.

I have described these pictures as developing a sense of ‘belonging and community’ as Dylan seems to be responding to the physical experience and the location of the figures in these pictures. This most closely approximates de Botton’s function of ‘self-understanding’.

c) Re-balancing: the love of order

june 15 005Like others with ASC Dylan can appear more interested in objects than in people. His attraction to the material world is not random and indiscriminating however; he is drawn to pattern and symmetry and to phenomena which shape-shift (such as water and steam). Dylan’s interest in architectural drawing could be considered stereotypically autistic; the attraction of this drawing of Ulm Cathedral seems to be in the number of windows which Dylan likes us to count together.

june 15 020Dylan’s interest in this French exhibition poster, meanwhile, focuses on the car and, more specifically, the wheels. Dylan likes me to name parts of the car such as the lamps and windows but it is the shape of the wheels which seem to bring him particular satisfaction. Dylan has a natural curiosity about the material world and an appreciation for buildings and machines. I’m not sure I realised this when he was younger but I think it is clearly expressed through his orientation to art.

Dylan’s enjoyment of these prints is perhaps illustrative of the impact of neurodiversity on visual orientation and perspective. If I were to analyse what it is that he responds to in these example pictures I would say it is order and pattern. This may correspond with de Botton’s function of art as ‘re-balancing’ us.

d) Growth: nature and spirituality

june 15 003Dylan has what I think of as a spiritual dimension which he often seems most in touch with near water and in light. He has a strong orientation to nature and a particular interest in solitary figures in landscape. I bought this watercolour in 2008 at an art fair in Portreath, Cornwall; I wanted to support a local artist (Beth Edge) and I liked that it depicted a spot where Laurence Binyon is reputed to have composed the poem ‘For The Fallen’. When I chose the painting I don’t think I noticed the detail which would subsequently captivate Dylan: two figures sitting on a bench by the Pepperpot, looking out to sea. I wonder if it is the grandeur of the seascape he is absorbed by as much as the tiny human smudges gazing at it?

Munch 003In Dylan’s very favourite picture a man sits alone at a window looking out across a body of water in moon and lamplight. This Munch painting (Nacht in Saint Cloud, 1890), reproduced as a poster for an exhibition I visited before Dylan was born, is possibly the most important thing in Dylan’s life. It is so crucial to him that I have written into my will that it must stay with Dylan always. I don’t know what it is which enchants Dylan about the image but I have some clues in the words it stuns him to. Dylan asked me, a long time ago, for a word for the reflection of the window frame: ‘it’s a sort of cross on the floor’ I suggested. Later he told me that the diaphanous light at the left hand side of the painting is a curtain. Dylan also fixes on the light above the seated man. All my attempts to offer other details from this dark, indistinct print have come to nothing: ‘Lamp’, ‘Curtain’, ‘Cross on the floor’, Dylan chants.

If I were to apply de Botton’s functions of art to these paintings I would perhaps identify them as addressing the need for ‘Growth’. Analysing their content for ‘the concerns of the soul’ (as de Botton terms it) I might suggest that the metaphysical themes and imagery focus the viewer on the concepts of awe or grace. Maybe Dylan is responding to a compositional aesthetic as much as to a painting’s content, however. An artist once explained the ‘Golden Ratio’ to me and I have sometimes wondered if the relationship between lamp (top), curtain (left) and floor (bottom) in Nacht in Saint Cloud offer Dylan that sort of beauty. Or perhaps he has an intuitive feel for other artistic formulae such as the ‘Serpentine Line’ or ‘Venetian Secret’? The explanation, I suspect, will remain Dylan’s secret.

Rethinking autism and art

‘Art therapy’ usually involves attempts to engage people in producing art. While there are some valuable examples of such work I would argue that it isn’t appropriate for everyone with an Autistic Spectrum Condition. Dylan has no interest in participating in art sessions but, as I hope I have shown in these posts, art is something which is important to him and from which he benefits. It is surely the case that just as you don’t have to play an instrument in order to enjoy music, so you don’t have to hold a brush to derive pleasure from art. An art appreciation model is, perhaps, a therapeutic approach with potentially broader application within autism education and care.



Other prints in the home which Dylan enjoys, and which I could have included as further illustration of the categories identified in this post, include La Toilette by Toulouse-Lautrec (1896), a portrait of Vivienne Westwood and a vintage railway poster. Pieces which Dylan ignores include reproductions of work by Schiele, Picasso, Blake, Rossetti and Macke as well as two other de Lempickas, some original paintings by local artists and various posters and maps.



Julian Barnes (2015) Keeping An Eye Open: Essays in Visual Art. Jonathan Cape
Alain de Botton and John Armstrong (2013) Art as Therapy. Phaidon Press
Grayson Perry (2013) The Reith Lectures, 1-4 [for the ‘Serpentine line’ and ‘Venetian Secret’]

Episode One of Keeping an Eye Open by Julian Barnes (BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week, 22/06/15) is available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b05zhhhy

*  This post builds on my earlier blog post:  Art And Autism:  Psst you. Hey kid. Yes you.

9 thoughts on “Dylan’s Pictures: stunned into words

  1. Pingback: Art And Autism: “Psst, you. Hey kid. Yes you” | Living with Autism

    • Dylan’s communication is very much through behaviour Elisa. He has only a few words (almost entirely nouns) and although I can’t be absolutely sure of his understanding he certainly couldn’t respond to ‘why questions’ or explain what he likes about something. I am still very much working on ‘whether’ questions involving two possibilities: ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in response to simple questions and asking whether something is ‘good’ or not (with a thumbs up). So I might say ‘do you like the picture Dylan? Is that a good picture?’ and he might echo back ‘gu’ and put up a thumb (though I’m not convinced this is always reliable as it tends to be echolalic). But asking what he liked about something would be just too hard for him. I’m trying to think if I ever try. Maybe if he is watching a film and seems happy I might pick out a feature from the screen and say something like ‘Is the snow good?’ to try and figure out what it is he is responding to in the scene. But I’d have to offer the possibility rather than invite it in an open-ended way – so we are very much in the realm of good/bad; happy/sad (just making progress with this this); and yes/no. Although I am sometimes at a loss to understand Dylan’s behaviour, I am still amazed at how much is possible through behaviour and a few key words…


      • I am sorry. I know that part. I mean, when I like art, I look or am attracted to shadow and light and shading, contour. He might not have verbal skills to communicate about these but perhaps simple nouns detract from his enjoyment. When I look at the first image in the post I see the edges first, which is alot where many autistics focus. Creating a way to show or to see what one cannot see. If that makes any sense. Perhaps Mom in images is a madonna type thing for him and not just a simple projection of you. I suppose it is not good to imagine for him what he enjoys but simply to provide it. I consider that art is ageless. And I didn’t dumb it down for my kids even when trying to show them words and shapes and colors.

        I would say things like(to my kiddos)….I just love to stare at this one, i really hate it when some smart person tries to make me look at this or that, taking away my joy of experiencing it.

        Anyway the images you shared have a definite line at the edges that define begin and end but also shading. Is and Is not has me feel a safe sort of thing inside, simple to define space and feeling and meaning. That might just be me. 🙂 I apologize for not watching my words to be sure that i didn’t come across as thick.


      • Oh now I see what you mean – I was reading too literally. Sorry 🙂 You’re right that Dylan may well be enjoying the shadow and light in his favourite pictures. In fact that is very likely. Such things are hard for me to verbalise never mind Dylan. Quite often D points to an area of a print that he’s interested in as if asking me for a ‘word’ for it, or something we can use between ourselves to refer to it with. But sometimes he points to an area of a print which I struggle for a word for. So for example in the Gauguin there is an ochre area which he likes and which I’ve told him is ‘sand’ because I don’t know what else to say. It almost certainly isn’t sand but that’s what we call it. That ‘curtain’ in the Munch is probably another example of trying to find a noun for an area which is quite simply light-filled. I am certain that light, shade, colour, shape, line etc are the things in paintings which stir Dylan. We don’t have an easy language for these so they have become these poor, familiar nouns instead. I hope that they don’t detract from D’s enjoyment. I don’t think they do as he seems to get huge pleasure from talking to me about these paintings, using whatever sounds/words we have agreed as a common language. It’s interesting to hear you reflect that these images have a definite line. I am sure that the women/mothers are not projections of me but rather representations (of comfort or whatever). Perhaps you’re right that it is not good to imagine what D might enjoy but perhaps it is better than assuming it is the same as the things I enjoy. Thank you Elisa for reminding me of the light and shade – that is so important 🙂


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